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Interview with American composer Hampson A. Sisler

Hampson A. Sisler, one of the most prolific American classical composers living today, recently celebrated his 81th birthday. American Record Guide describes his music: "It [Four Impromptus] has melodies Howard Hanson would die for. It reminded me of Charles Ives'. This man should be much better known than he is."

H. A. Sisler, Composer
H. A. Sisler, ComposerBV Artists International
Cover of Hampson A. Sisler's new oratorio, The Second Coming, on MSR Classics label
Cover of Hampson A. Sisler's new oratorio, The Second Coming, on MSR Classics labelBV Artists International

Last month, Mr. Sisler's new oratorio The Second Coming had its world premiere, and was just released on MSR Classics label. The momentous event took place at The New York Society for Ethical Culture. This exclusive interview was made possible with the assistance of Mr. Sisler's management, BV Artists International.

Q: Mr. Sisler, when did you write your first composition?
A: In 1951.

Q: Can you explain the process of composing contemporary music. What has been-or still is-your greatest challenge in this process?
A: First of all, a degree of harmonic dissonance is essential, but it should not be applied randomly – only for reasons of particular expression. And chromaticism needs to be piquant but not saccharine, as in late romantic times. Secondly, varying meter is needed to comply with accenting needs and programmatics. Musical form must also prevail, as in all classical styles, but may be abstruse to a degree to avoid obviousness. Remaining consistent within the idiom and with good thematic development in the middle section is the ongoing challenge. Accessibility is also very important. The music has to appeal to both performer and listener from the start. Otherwise, it will never “get off the ground.”

Q: With whom did you study composition?
A: Norman Coke-Jephcott and Seth Bingham.

Q: Who were your earlier and current influences?
A: Earlier: Palestrina, J.S. Bach, and then the Romantics. Later: Leo Sowerby, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten.

Q: How did your work as a church musician affect your creative process over the years?
A: Good church service playing requires quality improvising on the organ–which I do with great pleasure ongoingly. This keeps my creative spirit up. And I love working with choirs as well.

Q: Do you have favorite ensemble or instrument(s) to compose for?
A: The organ remains my first choice in solo instruments, but I like the pianoforte and harpsichord also. Strings appeal a lot as do brass and woodwinds. And I like the percussion section, too. The harp is a great instrument. So I guess that I really like them all.

Q: In what ways has your music grown and changed over the past 10 years?
A: When I review my older writing, it remains much like what I do today except that I am somewhat less dissonant and aim at greater performer accessibility than previously.

Q: What kinds of rewards or problems have you encountered along the way as a composer?
A: I used to suffer from a “love/hate” relationship with my writings. But, more recently, I react less from that sort of uncertainty.

Q: How are you responding to the changing face of classical music in the 21st century?
A: I like it. It is less obscure than it tended to be in the second half of the 20th century. There is less John Cage radicalism.

Q: Please, introduce your latest CD project.
A: I have two: an oratorio titled, The Second Coming [of Christ] and another, including four shorter works, titled Trans-Cultural Bonding : “Israeli/American Festival Overture,” “Faiths, Cohabiting” [Christian, Hebrew, Muslim, and an amalgamation of the three], “Cantata For Living” [i.e., life philosophies, in six movements], and “Japan Tragedy, 2011” [i.e.,a children’s musical play about the great earthquake].

Q: Is there a project that you dream of creating? What is the most challenging aspect of it which you may need some help with?
A: I want to write compositions about space beyond our solar system. For this, I need current astronomical information.

Please visit his Mr. Sisler's website.

Q: Mr. Sisler, you have so many funny stories. What is the funniest thing that has ever happened during a performance or during the creation of your music?
A: When giving an organ recital in Kiev, I was suffering from “Montazuma’s revenge”. Yet I played so well anyway that I received numerous curtain calls. But that didn’t please me as I needed to visit the men’s room so desperately! Also, when I was playing the Radio City Music Hall, New York City, organ for an Easter dawn service, I confused the buttons for opening and closing the stage curtains, as the engineer directed me through ear phones, to track back to the side at the end of the service; and I closed the curtains too early – on myself! I then had to re-open them again and wait ‘till I was further back to re-close them. When I apologized to the engineer afterward, he reassured me with the statement, “You did a hell of a lot better than the fellow we had last Easter!”

Q: Tell me about your current projects. What new pieces or recordings are you currently working on?
A: I’m working on a cello suite to be played either with keyboard or orchestra.

Q: What does the future hold for Hampson Sisler?
A: Awards aplenty wherein I will have reason to move onto “Cloud Nine” and out of the turmoil of the Big City.

Q: What is your message to our audience? What else would you like to share with us from your personal or music life?
A: Thanks to all audiences and, especially, to the wonderful musicians who play my and other composers’ music!

Hampson Sisler is the music director at the historic St. James Episcopal Church in Elmhurst, New York. His recent compositions have been performed in Bulgaria, Israel, Czech Republic, Russia, and the United States.